Modern reconstructive surgery owes a huge debt to a group of wounded warriors in World War II who called themselves the Guinea Pig Club. The group was composed of over 600 Royal Air Force members who required facial reconstruction, which at the time was experimental.
“The Guinea Pig Club is one of the most fascinating veteran's organizations, I think anywhere in the world, in modern military history,” Historian Dr. Emily Mayhew told Inside Edition Digital.
The members of the “club” fought in fighter and bomb aircrafts during the war, and they had all been burned and required surgery, Mayhew explained.
Facial reconstructions began during WWI, and patients who had undergone them were often issued masks to wear after the procedures, but they were “hot and heavy,” according to Mayhew, which resulted in many soldiers isolating themselves. During WWII, one specific surgeon would go on to become the one for many of the Guinea Pig Club members.
“He's called Archibald McIndoe, and he was appointed consultant plastic surgeon to the Royal Air Force,” Mayhew said. “And nobody really thought he'd have very much to do, but it turned out once the Spitfires and Lancasters started exploding, that he was going to be very busy indeed.”
But because that type of plastic surgery had not been done before, the surgeon had to improvise.
“He was very frank to his patients about the experimental nature of his treatment. Rather than be frightened of that, they embraced it,” Mayhew said. “They enjoyed being on the cutting edge and they claimed it by calling themselves the Guinea Pig Club.”
“Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Guinea Pig Club, is it isn't just about providing support for people, while they're having difficult and painful surgeries. It's also about providing support for young men, who have effectively lost their identity, because they've lost their faces,” Mayhew said.
While there are only a few Guinea Pig Club members still alive today, Mayhew says that much of what we know about facial plastic surgery today came from these surgeries.
“We believe that this fraternity, this confraternity, this understanding that they created in the club itself, is really a life extending factor, and something we can learn from today,” Mayhew added.